They Shall Not Grow Old Review
Despite being considered by a majority of historians to be the first modern war, World War I was and still is a conflict that we see little of onscreen, particularly in a way that the average person can relate to. The atrocities of the war are well recorded through non-fiction books, articles, radio transmissions, and first-hand accounts, and whilst they can be sympathised with to a degree, these are not necessarily accessible to most people, let alone truly understandable and relatable. They Shall Not Grow Old, though not perfect, is the closest the majority of people living today will come to understanding what went on one hundred years ago.
Featuring meticulously colourised footage that has been blown up to 16:9 aspect ratio, the film follows the young soldiers of WWI as they go through the recruitment process, the preparation, the war itself, and the dismal aftermath. It begins with the monochrome footage in its original aspect ratio, until they are sent away to fight - the moment that director Peter Jackson makes the switch to colour is as emotionally overwhelming as Dorothy's entrance to Oz, but in all the opposite ways. Suddenly, you aren't watching the same archive footage you've been shown before at school, faces blending into each other and personalities obscured. You're looking at people who lived and breathed, some unaware they were even being filmed, more often than not in their final moments.
As incredible as this footage seems in the first twenty minutes or so after it's employed, the strange novelty begins to wear off after a while, mostly because of They Shall Not Grow Old's structure. Rather than being split into subsections or frequently changing up what the viewer is looking at as many other documentaries do, the film doesn't really change from start to finish, consistently showcasing only voices and spruced up archival footage. Although I was aware that the content onscreen was uncovering lost history before my eyes, I found my attention drifting, and I really wished that the footage was being presented in a more structured, captivating way. It's all well and good having the revolutionary content, but you need a solid format to back it up, and Jackson wavered for me in this aspect.
Regardless, the emotional progression of the soldiers and their accounts of the war as the film went along was both fascinating and heartbreaking. They begin with an unwavering sense of purpose and confidence, wanting to assist their home country in any way they can, before discovering the pointless destruction of the war, and a lack of faith in their nationalism to go along with it. German soldiers are initially referred to by cruel nicknames, one individual even claiming that one Englishman is worth several of them, but after seeing themselves in the shaken young men they could no longer delude themselves into believing that they were any different. Little of the film presents hard historical facts, and this is certainly to its benefit - anecdotes and emotional perspectives are far more valuable to a general audience than dates and speeches could ever be.
The DVD doesn't offer much in terms of extras for WWI buffs or fans of the film, but an interview with Jackson is provided for those interested. All in all, despite my odd complaints, I feel as though my knowledge of this tragedy has been hugely broadened by watching this film in a way that it couldn't have been through any other means. I implore everyone who can to buy this DVD and watch this movie if they missed it in theatres. More importantly, I hope that the teachers and lecturers of the future will use it as an invaluable tool in passing on knowledge of the disgraceful levels of human loss that every war causes, so that those who lost their lives will be immortalised in memory, and so the mistakes of the past can be hopefully prevented from occurring in the future.